Massachusetts isn’t following suit right now, but all fall sports around here, assuming they can be played, will be delayed.
On Tuesday, the MIAA’s Board of Directors unanimously approved a recommendation by the association’s COVID-19 Task Force to delay until Sept. 14 the start of all fall sports. Those sports first must be given the OK to be played by individual school districts under the state guidelines for youth and K-12 sports that are expected to be updated soon.
The new start date, which represents a three-week delay, would be the first day of preseason work. The vote was 22-0.
“Whatever sports are viable for the fall, and that has yet to be determined, this would be the start date,” said St. John’s Prep principal Dr. Keith Crowley, co-chair of the task force.
The COVID-19 Task Force voted, 18-0, at its July 15 meeting to accept a recommendation from the MIAA Sports Medicine Committee that the fall sports season start after school begins in order to lower the chances of student-athletes contracting COVID-19 during preseason workouts. Two days earlier, the Sports Medicine Committee had voted 18-1, with two abstentions, to push that plan.
“The thought was: Let’s open up schools before we start sports,” said Duxbury athletic director Thom Holdgate, co-chair of the task force and a Board of Directors member. Holdgate said that in discussions with various school superintendents and principals, “They would like to have the educators being the ones educating people on the protocols they are going to be using in the building.”
“I think there’s a lot of wisdom to that,” Whitman-Hanson athletic director Bob Rodgers said. “There are so many moving parts in the school districts. We’re probably going to learn a lot as we go through the early stages (of this school year). You have to remember that a lot of our coaches are teachers and they are going to be dealing with a new way of doing business. I just think it’s good for everybody.
“I feel bad for the kids because they’re champing at the bit to get started. It’s always nice, when summer is coming to an end, that fall sports are starting, usually before school starts. It’s a way to get kids excited about going back to school. But anything we can do to put the odds in our favor that we can have a real high school fall season is what we should do.”
The Board of Directors also unanimously adopted two other COVID-19 Task Force recommendations:
1) The MIAA will comply with the upcoming youth/K-12 sports guidelines from the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA) and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). Those are expected by Aug. 1.
“If we can do sports we’d certainly like to do it,” said DESE Commissioner Jeffrey C. Riley, who joined the video conference. “But only if we feel like it can be done in a safe way. It may be that we have to modify sports. I’m not sure. We have to make some decisions on what athletics could look like. I don’t want anyone to think I’m anti-sports. I played soccer, hockey and baseball in the Massachusetts public high schools. I’m a big fan of athletics. On the other hand, we have to balance that with the safety issues.”
2) The Board also agreed to meet three business days after the joint guidelines are published. At that time the task force would make further recommendations on the mechanics of the fall season, including the format of the regular season and playoffs.
The task force also would discuss how athletics could be staged under remote learning conditions, should those be necessary, and would provide information to member schools about potential transportation guidelines that might, for instance, limit the number of student-athletes that could be on a bus together. Riley said transportation guidelines might be announced by the end of this week.
At that point, once the state guidelines are updated, Holdgate said, “We can give everyone a much better idea of what the fall will look like.”
The Board also unanimously voted to do away with the mandatory postgame handshake line for MIAA games, for health reasons.
Under the original MIAA schedule, football teams could have started conditioning work on Friday, Aug. 21 and graduated to “limited contact practice” on Aug. 25-26 and “full contact” practices beginning Aug. 27. Other sports, including soccer, field hockey and girls volleyball, were set to kick off preseason work on Monday, Aug. 24.
Pushing the preseason to mid-September would mean whittling down the regular-season schedule. As Holdgate noted, “It’s three weeks difference, but I don’t think anyone was really playing games before Labor Day. If you had, say, an 18-game field hockey schedule (originally set), you could probably fit in 13 or 14 (with the Sept. 14 start date).”
Football, however, would be trickier. Not only is it currently prohibited (classified as “high-risk” under youth sports/K-12 state guidelines), but even if it gets the green light, a regular season under the Sept. 14 plan likely would not kick off until Oct. 2. Last year’s South Sectional playoffs started on Nov. 1.
“I think that we might be able to get some consideration to lower the amount of days that are required for all sports (to practice before the season starts) with the exception of maybe football,” Rodgers said. “I’d be willing to bet that there might be some discussions that we can go with a seven-day preseason. Let’s face it — the kids aren’t sitting on their couches eating jellybeans, they’re all working out and doing the best they can to be in shape.”
However, Holdgate cautioned that the issue with an abbreviated preseason is that “these kids have not had structured training since Friday the 13th of March. I do think you will see several schools using that Sept. 14 date (as the start of team-specific training) and then running maybe non-sports-specific stuff before that to get the kids in shape. Everything’s still on the table.”
“Nobody is going to be 100 percent pleased with everything,” Rodgers agreed, “but … I think we’ll work something out that will be as palatable as we can (make it). But we are going to probably have a shortened season.”
Rodgers said Whitman-Hanson would benefit by being in the Patriot League, noting, “We have a lot of flexibility in a league our size with 12 teams. We could stay completely within our league and not play anybody outside and still give our kids (a reasonable) experience. No matter what we do, it’s not going to be the same experience that we usually have, but nothing is normal these days.”
At last check, at least 16 states, plus the District of Columbia, had delayed the start of fall high school sports. California, New Mexico and Virginia had moved them to the spring, while others had pushed the start dates into September or October. Texas has delayed the start of football in its biggest metro areas by a month.
New York State pushed the start of fall sports back to Sept. 21 and canceled all regional and state championships while also formulating an emergency condensed schedule to be used if sports can’t be played at all in the fall due to COVID-19. The “Condensed Season Plan” would have winter sports play from Jan. 4-March 13; fall sports go from March 1-May 8; and spring sports kick off April 5 and wrap up June 12. Each mini-season would last 10 weeks with overlaps.
“We have a subgroup of the task force working on stuff like that” for Massachusetts, Holdgate said, “but the idea is we’re not really going to use those plans unless we have to.”
Holdgate said that subcommittee “has been charged with thinking outside of the box” to anticipate a jumbled schedule. Some other states, he noted, have touted similarly “funky” plans but cautioned that not all of them would work here. “You just have to be smart,” he noted. “As much as you might want to move the fall to late winter, it’s hard to play soccer and field hockey on frozen ground when there’s snow on it.”
For now, all athletics are in a holding pattern.
Much like with the MIAA spring season that went through multiple permutations on the drawing board — each one envisioning a more compressed time frame — before eventually being scrapped altogether, at least the people in charge are trying to cover all possible bases.
“There has been so much thoughtful discussion and lots of ideas from athletic directors across the state and executives at the MIAA and principals and superintendents,” Rodgers said. “So many ideas have been exchanged, and what I like is that people are listening to each other. Nobody is really dictating and saying, ‘This is how it has to be.’
“People are working together to try to come up with something that will give us our best chance of giving these kids a high school athletic experience. That’s what we all want after what we saw in the spring with those kids losing their seasons. We want to make sure that we do everything in our power to give kids a chance to play.”